WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE! c 1986, 2001, 2005

Part I
Second Chapter
The Unleashing

Episode Eight: Pride and Power: the Opiates of the Legion

       Down the long, dark, dank stone corridor the noble Swiss Guard traipsed with the precious insentient cargo slung over his shoulder.

       Twenty-five hundred miles away, down through the darkness the Lear jet descended on final approach to the Iraqi airbase on the northern edge of the Iraq-Kuwait border. It too was carrying select cargo, a sentient payload in the person of Pat Gallagher. He had left in darkness from Dallas and was now arriving in darkness, a passage that seemed to haunt him as if he were imprisoned in an ominous vortex from which he could not escape.

Dateline: Iraqi Airbase outside of Safwan, November 1, 10:15 p.m.

       Pat Gallagher had always been a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy from his earliest upbringing just west of Shreveport in Louisiana's hill country. For this reason he held no fancy for the nauseous ministrations of the eunuch-like Soto Ichariak. Yet to quiet the annoyance, he had allowed himself to be served in flight a full course meal on fine china, with crystal and silver. With his stomach churning from both anxiety and apprehension, his appetite had not been up to the repast served. He had been more interested in the pattern etched upon the Waterford, the china and even the silver than the food it bore. He had wound up just moving his food about the plate to better study the distorted image burnished into the fineware.

       He was not sure what it was, but it looked like an animal of some kind, almost a heraldic phoenix or griffin, yet with all the semblance of a reptile as well. Blix had possibly dug up the thing in connection with long-ago ancestry.

       After coffee, he had asked Soto to provide him with a real drink to add to the enjoyment of the cigarette he had lit as the disapproving servant scowled over the uneaten cuisine. At least Blix had Jack Daniels along for the ride. That had helped Pat to get a little sleep, but not enough. Nevertheless, the thud of the Lear's wheels hitting the shoddily paved runway, told him sleep would have to wait. He studied the dark, bleak landscape as it flew by, the flaps clinging for gravity and the brakes screeching. Within 30 feet of a twelve-foot barrier the aircraft skidded to a halt and then taxied back toward a dimly-lit area near a military compound of some kind.

       He could see that the ever-efficient Blix had a car waiting for him at this airstrip. Great, chauffeured to the Field of Death in a limo? No way, Pat asserted, both to fend off the wealth and power of Blix and also in keeping with his journalistic nature.

       Soon he was down the stairs and Soto had scurried in front of him to open the back door of the Mercedes-Benz. Gallagher was aware of the scheme as he stopped short. It was if he had come to Iraq on vacation. He wasn't going to have Blix's lackey tailing him or driving him around.

       "Look, tell Blix I truly appreciate all he's done," Pat tried to suppress a smirk. "But this ain't no place for a neon sign spouting wealth. I need something rugged, inconspicuous. A jeep. Where I need to go this fancy car won't make it."

       Soto looked highly affronted, but wasn't going to quarrel with this transplanted Texan who had a reputation at the Metroplex Mirror as a man who could only be pushed so far. And Blix had been very specific in his instructions to Soto.

       It was Soto's only strength, really, that of dog-eared obedience to Blix. Edwin kept him and his brother Ans more than adequately rewarded for his canine-like acquiescence and unquestioning allegiance. Neither of the Ichariak twins were the brightest creatures alive - more like short-circuited computers who would run amok if pressed to consume too much information at one time. Pat made sport of trying to put Soto on overload.

       "C'mon. Quick, Soto. Find me a jeep! Whaddya gonna tell Blix? You couldn't find me a jeep in Iraq? Think of the consequences, Soto."

       Against his better judgment, Ichariak pocketed the keys to the Mercedes and headed across to a shed on the other side of the gate-enclosed compound to speak with the guard on duty. Soto was not going to jeopardize one iota of his privileges at this late date. He would tough it out and ride with Gallagher. He had no idea how to drive a standard transmission so he would let the reporter drive. But he would stay with him at all times just as Blix had ordered.

       From Pat's vantage point he could see another soldier join the conversation as Soto pointed toward the Mercedes. The guards looked surprised. They looked back at Soto, then the Mercedes and over their shoulders, yelling out something, then nodding approvingly. Within a few minutes, they unlocked a gate and a four-wheel jeep rumbled through and barreled to a stop near the Mercedes.

       What a contrast. The shimmering black Mercedes next to this prehistoric vehicle encased in dirt and grime that had eaten into the outer surface. Nowhere was there a piece of metal that wasn't dented, pinged or marred by bullet holes, rocks thrown up from the rugged terrain...or worse.

       Soto and the two other soldiers raced to it and again negotiations started anew. The soldiers were angry. They aimed their outmoded, yet still very deadly M-16's at Pat and Soto. The pilot, still in the Lear cockpit, ducked below the window, fearing gunfire.

       "Give him the damn keys to the Benz, Soto! For God's sake, man. Do it. Now!!!" Pat barked, truly afraid these trigger-happy soldiers would open fire.

       Trembling, Soto reached into his pocket and presented the keys to the Mercedes. The ranking lieutenant stepped from the jeep. His gesturing hand toward the battered vehicle telling Pat all he needed to know. They were trading the jeep for the Mercedes. Fair trade as far as Pat was concerned. Blix and Soto wouldn't think so, but so what. One of the soldiers snatched the keys from Soto's hand and spritely marched towards the military officer who now was rubbing the hood in approval. The soldier stood at attention, presented the keys and saluted. The recipient did not return the salute; just gestured for the soldiers to join him as he slipped behind the wheel of the slick and expensive German motorcar.

       They signaled the third soldier who withdrew his rifle and quickly jumped in the back seat as the three drove off in the polished luxury car across the tarmac and north, away from the compound gate. They were going on a fling, Pat guessed as he expired a deep sigh of relief and darted for the jeep. He jammed his small suitcase and sleek briefcase containing his laptop, computer camera and Reflector code kit behind the driver's seat, and revved the engine.

       "Mr. Gallagher," Soto's voice whined above the engine. "I will be only one minute. I must get my suitcase from the plane and..."

       Pat saw his opportunity. "I ain't waitin'! Tell Blix you delivered me safe and sound."

       "But, Mr. Blix gave implicit instructions that I be with you at all times for your safety," Soto realized this repugnant reporter had the upper hand.

       "Too bad," growled Gallagher. "You get that expensive jet refueled and take the hell off, Soto. I don't give a damn where you go personally, as long as it's okay with Blix. But I don't want you here. Got it? You ruin my whole game plan. Get lost. Scram. And tell Blix he'll get the best dam story he's ever had...but not till I'm ready to give it to him. Got that?"

       Soto did. In spades. "How will I know when to return for you?"

       "I'll call home, don't worry," snarled Pat. "Now git!"

       Before the bantam servant of one of America's most powerful men could find further objections, Gallagher put the jeep in gear and sped off in a spray of dirt and gravel that disgusted the fastidious Ichariak.

       That sight in Pat's rear-view mirror prompted the first hearty laugh in over 12 hours - not since just before midnight at Ben's place had he chuckled about anything. The impish bastard Soto was wiping grime off his face, hands and clothing as the pilot was appearing at the doorway totally perplexed. That in itself was funny, but Pat realized all too well that the mission he was on was no laughing matter.

       The satisfaction of Soto's predicament was soon clouded by the swirl of dust as Gallagher sped off in the bullet-ridden military jeep on the same course the Mercedes had headed - away from the base and north. He glanced down at the gage and breathed a sigh of relief. The gas tank was over 3/4ths full. Thank God.


Dateline: Rome, November 1, 8:30 p.m.

       Having just completed his Compline prayers for the day, Monsignor Stephen Navarro slipped quietly back into his office, flashlight in hand. It was a sure sign he did not intend to turn on the overhead light. No one was to know he was there. Reaching his desk he quietly and quickly dialed a phone number in St. Louis.

       "Cardinal Zachmann's office. May I help you?"

       "His Eminence please. Hurry." Stephen was noticeably nervous.

       "May I ask who's calling, Sir?"

       "Apache."

       "Pardon me?" She queried. The operator must be new Stephen thought.

       "He'll know. Just say 'Apache' like the Indian tribe."

       "Very well, please hold on."

Dateline: St. Louis, November 1, 1:31 p.m.

       The secretary for the cardinal, Father Robert Donaldson answered the intercom from the operator and instructed her to put him through, recognizing immediately the call was coming from his seminary classmate. He pressed the button and picked up. "Stephen, how's my bud?"

       "I've been better, I can tell you that, Bob. Listen, I'd love to talk but I really need to speak with His Eminence. Is he there?"

       "Yeah, just a sec, Steve, I'll get him."

       Father Donaldson rose from his desk in his full-length cassock and cincture and headed for the cardinal's office. Since the archbishop's appointment to St. Louis, all priests at the chancery had been instructed to wear their cassocks while at work. It was one of the cardinal's ways of sending a message that the hierarchy was not going to be taken over by liberal factions of the laity or be infiltrated by modernist priests ashamed of wearing the uniform of their calling. The strictness to traditional garb had also had a very positive effect on all other employees and visitors who regarded the diocese and the Faith in a newer, more respectful light.

       "Yes. Come in," called the 59-year-old graying prelate upon hearing Fr. Donaldson's knock at the door.

       "Ah, Father Robert, I was just about to call you. Can you call Lambert International and check on flights out tonight to Rome?"

       "I anticipated that, your Eminence, your bags are packed, your passport is on my desk and I have you booked first class on TWA - leaving at 7:15 and arriving 1:45 tomorrow afternoon at Fiumicino Airport."

       "Second class would have been more prudent. Nevertheless, you are indeed a blessing, Robert."

       "Thank you, your Eminence. By the way, Monsignor Navarro is on line three."

       The priest carefully closed the door and Cardinal Zachmann picked up the phone.

       "Stephen, I knew you would call."

       Expelling a sigh of relief, Stephen cupped his hand over the phone so as not to be heard outside of a ten-foot radius. "It's good to hear your voice, your Eminence. I'm afraid I have some disturbing news for you."

       Looking at the picture of the Pope on the wall, Gregory exhaled deeply, assuming it was about the explosion in Iraq. "I know, Stephen, it was terrible. God have mercy on all their souls."

       "No, it's not just that. That's bad enough. No, your Eminence, it's what is happening here."

       "I would surmise from your tone, Stephen, that things are not all they should be within the holy walls."

       "You surmise correctly, your Eminence. Cardinal Macelli has the Papal Letter "Qui et Dominum occiderunt Jesum et prophetas" which he claims was signed by the Pope before he left for Iraq."

       "To my knowledge, Stephen, he hadn't written anything like that."

       "Well, he's purported to have written that the Jews are responsible for Christ's death, but they can't be held accountable because theologically sin cannot be defined."

       The cardinal picked up on the syllogism Stephen was reaching, "Ergo, there is no such thing as sin! Of course, the same bafflegab so prevalent under John Paul II. Relativism. And another spark to ignite the anti-Semitic factions against the Church and foment division. I am not surprised Macelli is pushing this forgery. It all makes sense now."

       "But why would he release this with all the ecumenical talk and the signing in..." Stephen couldn't finish. The flood of memories of this morning welled up all over again.

       "I understand, Stephen. I understand. It doesn't make sense. But neither did the ecumenical pact. Too many compromises. It was the work of modernists and mayhem through and through. All part of the plan to destroy the Church. I fear the devil has delved very deep within the Vatican, Stephen."

       "Then you can see what I'm up against here, your Eminence?"

       "More than you can imagine, Stephen. We will talk at length when I arrive tomorrow. The College of Cardinals will begin arriving then and I intend to be there to make sure others of my colleagues are not caught up in this heresy. Too much heresy has already been allowed over the past four decades. I dare say dear Pius XII, Padre Pio and Bishop Sheen would not recognize their beloved Church today."

       "You were blessed to have known them, your Eminence."

       "We would all be more blessed to heed their wise counsel. Before I arrive, I have something I wish you to do."

       Cardinal Zachmann indeed had his pulse on the situation as he explained to Stephen steps the monsignor needed to take to assure no further damage could be done at least for now. As they talked on Stephen was unaware another conference was just beginning in a dark alley across the Tiber.

       Throughout history great generals have planned victorious battles for the forces of good and also the forces of evil in the smallest and most disagreeable of places - foxholes, dungeons and bunkers deep within jungles, high atop mountain crevices, on the flats of the barren desert. There have been those also who changed the course of civilization who were not recorded in the annals of time. Yet their deeds were just as devious, just as resounding. Such was the scenario for four plotters of perdition on this night of the dead.

       They met in an ill-furnished room in the back basement of a nondescript store in the seedier section of Rome, hidden by an overhang which served as a stone awning to the ancient home above. The entire area exuded a sickly odor and a miasma that no amount of scrubbing could eradicate. It was much like the stench of moldering earth and rotting vegetation captured for too long beneath the ground. But the group that met here this evening had grown used to it after a number of years meeting at this secluded spot. They had furnished it sparingly so as not to arouse any attention in the neighborhood.

       They had kept their meetings to infrequent rendezvous, and then never at the same time or on the same day or within any given month. They had perfected the art of sneaking to the meetings without detection - a hallmark that seemed to cloak the members of the Legion. With soft lighting issuing from several small lamps set strategically in the corners, no windows to give away their presence, and an air-tight door that let no light escape, not even underneath, they took every precaution. Brunatti, a craftsman by trade, had sealed the door and walls with a heavy soundproofing material that could tell tales of horror the world over if those rugged, unfinished pores had ears.


Dateline: Rome, November 1, 9:00 p.m.

       Brunatti and Serrano had arrived separately, nevertheless early. For all four who would meet this night, their black garb was a viable cape of concealment from nosy neighbors or streetwalkers. Brunatti had brought the "wine" as he had been instructed. In this case the "wine" was one Maria Figuerido from Venezuela. Though in her late twenties, upon closer inspection her face bore ravages that bespoke a life of violence and trauma. No one, save perhaps a few of the highest officials of the Legion, knew the reasons behind those epidermis etchings. Whether they were due in part to events that happened to her or to events which she had been the instigator, only they and she knew. Nevertheless, she was a force, and one Guillaume, in particular, had come to appreciate during the last six years in which she had been a member of the nefarious Legion.

       In fact, the ruthless Italian had fallen under her spell shortly after he had been introduced to her and they had pulled off a very successful coup just at the time when he had been scared stiff and hurting most from Larz Zimmerman's demise. In the course of their work Guillaume had found her womanly charms insatiable. In fact, he had come to a point where to him she was extraordinarily beautiful, the epitome of a complete woman. Their torrid and lurid lovemaking resembled two beasts acting out of basic instinct rather than any semblance of gentleness. These trysts were interspersed by long periods of separation, which neither ever questioned. Such was life with the Legion. Soon or later they were always thrown back together again, and Guillaume would melt all over, feeling a false sense of youth, intoxicated with this woman with raven hair, a rock-chiseled body that curved into fantasies of lust, and eyes that churned with seething emotions. This goddess of eroticism was as unmanageable as anything he had ever encountered. Now she sat across from him on a peasant-made wooden chair, legs discreetly but seductively crossed behind a simple wooden table.

       As she sat there concealing all her hidden cravings beneath a black jumpsuit covered by an ebony trenchcoat, Brunatti tried to fantasize but his thoughts kept funneling back to the troubles he and Serrani had encountered earlier in the evening in the Papal Apartment. Damn that nun. Macelli had been none too happy when they had reported the missing baggage to him just an hour ago. In fact, he had been livid. They had not told Vendhem yet. Better for Macelli to break it to him rather than them. Perhaps Vendhem had removed them without telling them or Macelli. Damn Vendhem. Someone was not sticking to the rules.

       "What went wrong?" Serrano spoke matter of factly as he poured Chianti for Brunatti, Maria and Usif Ezerbet. Perhaps Ezerbet would be able to shed light on the matter. The smiling assassin. That was Usif. This night he was smiling, despite the problems they faced; he smiled, letting the deeply-toned skin glimmer with the sweat of victory as he faced his companions in this stifling room. He was dressed as any modern man, shunning any manner of dress which might set him apart. However, a good look at the dark face and deep eyes as impenetrable as the strong expresso he gulped incessantly bespoke his heritage at once, and the accent to his speech gave further testimony to his Turkish ancestry.

       "Elena was not notified of the switch," Ezerbet intoned inhaling the aroma of the freshly poured Chianti.

       "The timing was not right. It was supposed to happen after the pope and the rest spoke." Brunatti brought his gnarled fist down on the wooden table. Figuerido did not flinch as she calmly watched her amorous partner continue. "That would have sealed it. Some one has either crossed us up, my friends, or we have not been notified of new plans. In either case, this is not good."

       Serrano was getting worried, "Then has this altered the master's plan or has the master decided we are disposable as well?"

       "You think the master must consult us on everything, Luciani?" Maria's words oozed with loathing. It was one of the traits that triggered the beastly passion in Guillaume and confounded Serrano so.

       "I did not say that, Maria." In self defense Serrano defiantly shifted his body in an effort to gain superiority.

       "While you bicker, my friends, you are unaware of the news?" Ezerbet sought to clarify and ease the tension.

       "No," queried Brunatti, "just that our power plants all perished."

       "For the cause I might add," Usif sought to assure all. "They didn't know either. It was better that way.

       "Our imposters?" Maria asserted herself back into the conversation. "Were there any traces?"

       "Quite unlikely, Maria." Ezerbet's smile widened. "Explosives were planted everywhere in the tiaras, crowns, miters, microphones, staffs, podiums, cloaks, aisle standards, what have you. Elena made sure our expendable operatives were spread out evenly everywhere. Even the children contributed to the cause - unbeknownst to them, of course."

       "Then they did not know they too would be victims?" Brunatti quizzed Ezerbet. After all only Ezerbet had spoken to Elena after the explosion.

       "Quite wise, my Italian friend. Just, poof and boom." Ezerbet was now ecstatic.

       Brunatti sought to soothe the strain between the two people closest to him who were still icily staring each other down. "You see, Luciani, Maria has a point you too could agree to. Were the master to have revealed his plans it is quite possible many of those who had pledged their lives would have vacated much sooner and the destruction would not have been complete."

       Serrani was not to be compromised quite so easily. "All well and good, Guillaume. However, what gain was achieved if we do not have the all-important documents. You recall they too were destroyed."

       Maria again sought to trump this man whom she despised, quite possibly because of her intense jealousy over Guillaume. Though Brunatti was merely a plaything, and a weak one at that, yet her consumption had to be exclusive and with Serrano being Guillaume's constant shadow that was not possible. "Besides, Luciani, Vendhem and Macelli have things well in hand. One small set back, that is all. No?"

       Serrano was quick to pounce. "Ah, no, senora. In fact, Vendhem and Macelli have far greater problems I fear."

       Figuerido and Ezerbet were taken back by this puncturing of their confident mood. She shot back, "What do you mean by that?"

       Again Brunatti tried to underplay the puzzle that still did not seem to fit. "When we returned to dispose of the main course tonight, it had been cleared from the table."

       "Do you know who took this valuable entree?" The smile had disappeared from Ezerbet's face.

       "We suspect Vendhem has acted on his own," Serrano offered. "We don't know for sure but we do know it took Cardinal Macelli by surprise."

       "You mean without the master's approval?" Maria's eyes raged as she leaned her sensuous, but lethal body over the edge of the table.

       "Again, " Brunatti added, "we don't know but Macelli has asked that we be silent for now, lest we give him the upper hand if indeed he is out to deceive us."

       "And the master!" Maria was standing now glaring at both Italians. At once Guillaume realized there would be no tryst with this vixen tonight.

       Ezerbet could see that emotions were supplanting the master's scheme. He had to quell the dissension. "I shall make inquiries and we will soon know if Vendhem has crossed over. Nevertheless, since I have heard nothing to the contrary, we will proceed as planned. Tomorrow we begin Phase Two. The internal phase. You know it well. Do not stray."

       Brunatti finished his Chianti and breathed a sigh of relief, "Then we can prepare for the real crux of the mission which is yet to come."

       Serrano caught the uptone, "The world will soon find itself within a crucible from which there is no escape."

       Figuerido was not to be upstaged. "Only capitulation to the master."

       "The hour grows late," Ezerbet reminded all. "You know your appointed missions. We leave now. Maria first. No contact until you hear. Now let us stand."

       They stood in unison as Ezerbet intoned the pledge. "We pledge our loyalty to the master. We pledge our lives to make his reign possible. We are the Legion."

       On cue, in a spectral chorus they concluded this meeting with the unearthly response, "Long live the Basilisk."

       The room seemed to be engulfed for a moment in the grip of some sinister power. It was palpable. Its hissing breath was distinguishable from the shallow breathing of the disciples gathered around the table. It hovered and then the power receded.

       Serrano gathered up the glasses and the wine, Brunatti dusted the cheese into a small container. Maria stood near the door as Ezerbet took the ingredients from Brunatti and Serrano stored the glasses and wine behind a cabinet. The Turk reached for the light switch. In absolute darkness they would soon exit. It did not bother one of them to be in this near tomb. They relished the dark. It represented for them the foreboding caliginous caverns of contempt for all that was good.

       A single match flared which lighted their way to the door. Ezerbet blew it out and waited for a few seconds for any telltale smoke to dissipate. Then Brunatti eased open the wooden portal and the four people entered the deserted hallway which was even more dimly lit by a single low-wattage bulb beneath a dust-encrusted shade.

       Maria strode noiselessly down the hallway whose walls and floors were stained with mold, mildew and other less than savory signs of human occupation, the lime-green linoleum turning gray with dirt. Not even the click of the outer door told the others she had gone. Serrano waited a full five minutes, then he also departed. The soft-soled shoes which all wore made no clatter. Brunatti went next, then Ezerbet. The last one cast one last look down the hallway as he moved toward the exit.

       He didn't know why he always performed this final ritual of looking back. Habit, he supposed. But there was no one about, no one concealed in this fetid corridor. The door to the room where they had just met was the only portal on the floor. Pipes, and an accumulation of rubbish littered the passageway, boxes and crates from the produce store above tossed carelessly into a pile in the far corner to house the resident rats. Perhaps this was where the ever-present odor of decomposing vegetation originated, but such thoughts did not seem important to Ezerbet.

       He rounded the corner and let himself out into the lonely side of midnight. Stuffing his hands in his pockets he strode briskly off, back to the sumptuous villa he shared with a lonely contessa who was always glad when his work brought him to Rome. It was a life of luxury in every way, provided by the master.

       He was ordinarily a levelheaded man, not given to mood swings. Still, late on this evening of November he enjoyed a sensation of lightness. He thought himself invisible and invincible, a deadly combination. How marvelous the master was to those who served faithfully. He felt particularly lucky that he had been chosen for this elite inner circle, the closest to the master himself. Oh, there were many in the Legion of the Basilisk worldwide. But only a handful of the very best disciples were allowed to carry out the plans, formulate them, gloat over them. The rest were merely pawns. For those in the inner circle, the master had promised shared power and wealth untold in his kingdom. Ah, Ezerbet could hardly wait.

       If only he had gone back to that basement corridor and taken a third look. If only. He had not seen the shifting of the boxes in that far corner, farthest from the light. Had he paused, even for a fraction of a second, he might have heard the sound, investigated and discovered what the Legion feared most next to displeasing the master - detection.

       The subtle racket was most certainly not rats. Far too noisy for that. Moreover, what rat, however huge, could move such a pile of boxes and wooden crates? After several seconds there was a solid crash as the offending, concealing interloper fell to the floor. Rising up from the depths of the basement foundation, like a demon from hell, came the figure of a man.

       He was obviously a beggar from his unkempt clothes, unwashed body, and an alcoholic from the smell of his breath that permeated his pores. He stared down the corridor where the four figures in black had only disappeared minutes before. Satisfied all were gone, he drew forth from his grimy pocket a flask containing pure whiskey, tipping the neck of the bottle into his open mouth which revealed blackened, rotted teeth. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, then licked the hand clean of all residue of the precious liquid.

       He had seen what he had been sent to see, heard what he could. It would be enough. Now to go make his own report and get his reward. That was the best part. The man knew his needs, even the unspoken ones. He had given the fellow as many details as his failing eyesight would permit. Maybe embroider a few while he was at it. Ah, what the hell, better get on with it. His pint was nearly empty.

       Of course as he crawled from beneath the cardboard-and-crate bedspread which had concealed him he had no idea that what he had just witnessed was about to forever change countless lives. He did not know as he ambled out to make his report that his own life was in grave peril.

       For years alcohol had been Sebastiano Tenazi's shield. In the last few months he had acquired the need for heroin, too. A wonderful thing, that opiate. What the alcohol failed to blot out the heroin did. Such pleasant dreams. Always of the man who was, so to speak, his sponsor. The man who always met him on time, spoke gently, studied him intently and took great pains to see that he had everything his body craved. Ah, to have finally found a friend.

       Poor Sebastiano, who had spent most of his life in a Roman gutter, was in no condition to deal with the indisputable fact that the Legion of the Basilisk would try by every means known to their master to destroy the world with Black Fire!

       Ignorance! At least it alleviated fear.

       While Sebastiano Tenazi stumbled out of his hidey-hole and went to keep his appointment, Maria Figuerido was also making her way back to the simple room she had taken above a restaurant not far from the main shopping area of Rome. It was the part-time position as waitress which allowed her to be here in the city and suitably employed as a cover. Always she was at the command of the master whenever he should summon. She knew he would need her soon. Events were going to start rolling forward with the unrestrained progress of a runaway train now.

       Maria had been born in the late 70's in the western Venezuelan village of Puerto Ayacucho on the Orinoco River bordering Colombia, deep in the jungles of South America. She was raised in an environment of poverty that was unprecedented to most of the modern world, and nearly incomprehensible to the affluent nations. She had been the middle child of seven, and had watched life unfold around her through eyes glazed with hunger. Her parents were old by the time they were in their late twenties. She had watched three of her siblings die of starvation, another of a fever for which there was no medical help, and had vowed that somehow, someway she would not spend the rest of her life in such circumstances. Sooner or later she would escape, run away from the parents who depended on her to beg in the streets when a mere child, and later as she blossomed into a young teen, to offer her body to whoever would pay money to use her; money that her father channeled to feed the rest of the family. She would sell her soul to the devil if she had to in order to escape the ravages she had experienced.

       Maria had somehow maintained her beauty of body throughout the ordeal, perhaps because she possessed a steel will that was absent in the rest of the family. Even her two surviving older brothers seemed disinclined to strike out on their own to better themselves, feeling an obligation to their parents who had suffered inordinately the burdens of responsibility overwhelming.

       Maria endured no such emotional ties. She got the hell out and blocked all images of her parents and siblings suffering from abject poverty. She was not there in her 16th year when her mother and father succumbed to malnutrition and disease that took both their lives.

       Her tale was not new, nor unique; simply one of millions of poor who would do anything to make life more bearable. In the entrails of the Venezuelan villages it was her beauty of body that had given her an edge.

       Nevertheless, her attractiveness was also a mask, a concealing camouflage to the bitterness, hatred and every dark emotion that corroded her heart. She sought only to reek vengeance upon a society that allowed such poverty.

       At sixteen she was doing tricks on the streets of Caracas. After some time spent in prostitution, drug smuggling, later gun trafficking and leftist movements, she had finally caught the eye of a very wealthy entrepreneur from Buenos Aires. The man had taken her under his wing, and transformed her into a goddess.

       For a while it was a good arrangement. He used her...and she used him to further her own goals. Then the day came when she was pronounced fit to pay back her sponsor in the high-pressured world of modeling. It was off to Paris for the glamorous Maria. Her benefactor accompanied her and opened all the right doors, taught her all the right moves, and believed her gushing gratitude.

       One cloudy day at the Louvre she had met a figure in the shadows who had seemed to know more about her in one second than any human being had ever known. He had offered her a chance to belong to his organization; one that watched out for its members with care and concern. Ah, the price of a soul. From that point on she would lack for nothing, but her services had to be above suspicion. She would do what she was told without question, and she would receive her reward. Maria accepted, knowing that eventually she would be able to fulfill her own personal goals of revenge through this strange man with eyes that hypnotized and read souls in the flash of an eyelash.

       One night in the nineties her benefactor was called to a splashy nightclub on the Left Bank. Maria remained in the apartment, begging off with a headache. It was the turning point for her. Unknown to her benefactor she had contacted some underworld figures and paid them secretly from the money she had made as a model. They had provided her with explosives and the knowledge she needed to use them. They had also arranged the contact to lure her benefactor out.

       It was no small annoyance for her to rig her benefactor's Peugeot with enough plastic explosives to leave only ashes floating about when all was said and done. She had accomplished her task with such calm that any normal person would have recoiled in horror at the lack of human emotion present in this creature. She had taken the precaution to cover her moves. Moreover, unbeknownst to her benefactor, she had transferred his wealth into a private Swiss account. Cleaned him out. He would not be able to discover it until the next morning. If he turned that key on the ignition he would never know. He did and there was no tomorrow for yet another stepping stone in Maria's life.

       From France it was on to Geneva where soon after she met up with the Swede Larz Zimmerman, a close friend of Guillaume Brunatti's and a member of the Legion. Larz however had been weak, had vacillated when push came to shove. He had bungled a few jobs and the Legion wanted things cleaned up. They had sent in Maria. It was no time before she had Larz dangling on a string of devotion to her womanly charms, and from that point on it was only a short interlude before she was able to lure him to his death in a remote area of the Italian Alps.

       She had enjoyed murdering him. Hands-on experience of this kind alleviated some of the angry hatred which boiled within her. After that, she had reaped untold financial rewards, first from the transferred funds of her late benefactor, and then from the master himself as she came to think of this man who appeared when it was necessary, and then only briefly. She was finally a full-fledged member of the Legion of the Basilisk. Next she had been asked to join forces with one Guillaume Brunatti. From there on it had been quite simple. She had obeyed. She had received her reward. She could not exhaust her thirst for revenge. For some reason, no one ever connected her to the death of her benefactor, or Larz Zimmerman. Another courtesy afforded by loyalty to the one who owned her. The master had her right where he wanted. She was still a slave.

       Alone this evening in her modest apartment above the restaurant, as Maria readied for bed she thought with satisfaction that the master was cultivating her for a special position within his new kingdom. She had visions of what she expected it to be: visions, even, of what her role would be. Maybe this aloof man who came out of nowhere now and then and set plans in motion which rocked the world would then have the time to find out just what she could really offer a man. That, Maria had learned long ago, was the only real power any woman had on earth. She intended to be that woman. She intended for the master to never forget it.

       With those thoughts she dozed into dormition. In repose her face was utterly beautiful. No wonder she fooled so many people, cajoled so many men. No wonder the master sought her out. She was perfect. On the outside a succulent peach to be savored; inside the flesh rotting away with the worm of evil devouring her inch by inch, transforming her. Yet Maria did not recognize the metamorphosis. The master would not let her see...not yet, anyway.

       As she breathed freely this night, evil stoked the coals of her soul and the Black Fire collected within her, ready to be spewed forth at the master's whim.

* * * * * * *


       While Maria slept, Sebastiano Tenazi continued to wend his wobbly way through a blind haze of alcohol to a side street off the Via Magdalena. There the man would be waiting for him. He went by instinct. There was not a section of Rome he did not know well, particularly the less savory sections. That was one thing that surprised Sebastiano. The man he met seemed too well-educated and cultured. Yet, he showed no fear or loathing of being in parts of the city where no reasonable person would venture, especially after dark.

       He found the designated shop window with the clock in the window, and stumbled a few more feet to an alleyway which veered off to the left. Halfway along this narrow passageway the man he expected suddenly stepped out of the shadows near one of the buildings, as if appearing from nowhere.

       "I was there, just like you told me. Si?" Sebastiano was beaming with pride.

       "Good. And what did you see?"

       "There were four of them, like you said. Wary. Looking over their shoulders all the while. Yet cocky, know my meaning? Si?"

       "Explain," the man ordered, staying well into the shadows so that he appeared one with them.

       Sebastiano tried to get his depleted brain to function. Damn, he better remember before this guy found another stool-pidgeon. But the man had other ideas. He thought Sebastiano useful. He stepped forward and raised a hand, the arm clothed in a black garment, and the hand covered by a rich black leather glove. He placed the hand upon the beggar's head and peered steadily into his eyes. It was just possible to see a faint glow in the darkness, like a small laser beam which connected the two individuals together. Then the man lowered his hand and Tenazi spoke clearly.

       "They seemed all puffed up. Proud of something they had done, I guess. Like you had told me, I had removed just a small piece of the weather-stripping, but it was hard to hear their voices through the door."

       "I know. Go on, " assured the mysterious man in black.

       "Well, they talked about the coming victory. The power each of them would have. The preparations that needed to be made for a new phase. And then they would wait to see what was needed next. But when they came out, I was well-hidden beneath the boxes and crates, like I told you." Sebastiano looked up and pleaded, "You have now my reward?"

       "Not yet. Soon. Go on, Sebastiano."

       "Anyway, the woman she left first. Haughty she was. Acted regal, like some queen. The well-dressed mustachioed man - an Italian - left next, hurrying away, although he told the woman he wanted to meet her later. Then the rather burly man, the one who seemed the most nervous of any of them. He also was Italian. Like he suspected something wasn't right, but he could not put his finger on it. Finally, the foreign-looking man was last to go. Cautious man, cunning too, this one. Looked over his shoulder before he went. Was I ever glad I stayed hidden till I was sure it was clear. Now?"

       "Almost, Senor Tenazi, almost. Just a bit more."

       "By the time I crawled out of the hiding place and got to the street, there was no sign of any of them. So, I guess they did what you wanted them to do. I don't know. They were there. So was I."
       "And you did very well. Thank you, Sebastiano. Here, roll up your sleeve. I'll give you something for tonight's pains, yes?"

       "Si," Tenazi agreed eagerly, pushing up the torn sleeve to expose his bare flesh that was marked with many needle pricks. The black gloved hand reached into a breast pocket and withdrew a syringe, which he expertly plunged into the beggar's arm. The old drunk never flinched, and in seconds after the needle was extracted he murmured, "And I thank you, master. Thank you. Wonderful. No pain now. Everything is okay again."

       "My pleasure, Sebastiano. I have some other things for you, too." The figure of the man bent, reaching behind him where he brought forth several large bottles of the finest Chianti, though for the old man's sake he had put them in paper bags.

       "Ah, the best. You are too good to an old fool like me," Tenazi apologized.

       "You serve me well, Sebastiano. And I have some more of the opiate, too. It's of excellent quality. It will tide you over till we meet again."

       "Yeah, sure." Tenazi could not believe his good fortune. "I guess that's all then?"

       "For tonight, my dear Tenazi. Go to your rest. I'll summon you when you are needed next."

       Sebastiano somehow managed to weave his drugged way back out of the alley, back down the side street and into the wider Via Magdalena. He had not looked back. Had he, he would have seen nothing but shadows. The figure in black had vanished.

       The old beggar had no place in particular to go. He didn't care. He felt wonderful. Relaxed. Everything was perfect with his world at this moment. He just wanted to lie down and sleep and think of nothing. That was life's sweetest gift to him - nothingness, he thought. He found a bench about ten yards down the street and crawled behind the bushes to the side where a small park was formed by the joining of two central squares that would be active with the voices of children in the morn.

       For now all was quiet. He never worried about tomorrow. Today, the moment was all that he cared about, all that he could handle. He lay down, pillowing his head on his arm, and drifted off into the luxury of the opium which dulled all memory...save one. The memory of the man who had provided possibilities for Tenazi, the man with the strange eyes of burning coal!

       Little did Sebastiano know the full scope of how the beast had been unleashed!



Next: PART II: The Smoldering THIRD CHAPTER, Episode One: Assigned to the Ashes

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WHITE SMOKE, BLACK FIRE!
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